A long term supporter, friend and advocate on behalf of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, Woeser previously wrote many blogposts about him but this one is particularly important as a record of all the events of the turbulent week that he died, as they unfolded. At the time of his death, Woeser had written “Our Recollection Becomes a Tombstone in the Air”.
The article below sometimes uses the name for Tenzin Delek Rinpoche which appears in official Chinese records, A’an Zhaxi.
“A Journal of July 2015: The Death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche”
July 12, 2015
In the evening, relatives are waiting at a Chengdu prison to visit Tenzin Delek Rinpoche when they suddenly receive a message: “A’an Zhaxi has died of an illness this afternoon.” No further explanations.
The visitors are Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s younger sisters, Sonam Dekyi and Dolkar Lhamo, who demanded the authorities to allow them to visit Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. But from June 2013 until today, they have not met him once. What they knew, however, was that after being wrongly imprisoned for such a long time, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was physically and mentally ruined; and the unyielding attitude of the authorities never changed. Relatives had told the authorities that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was suffering from heart disease and high blood pressure and requested the them to grant permission to take him to a hospital outside. They never received any reply.
On July 2, 2015, Tenzin Delek’s two younger sisters finally obtained permission to travel to Chengdu and were waiting for permission to visit the prisoner. Ten days later, they are confronted with the devastating news of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death.
July 13, 2015
The news of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death shocks the southern Kham area: On July 13, around noon, a thousand Tibetans from Nyagchuka County gather in front of the Horlung Towsnhip government protesting, crying, demanding an explanation for Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death and asking for his body to be returned. The authorities call in military police that start firing riot guns into the crowds, injuring over ten Tibetans. Local security measures are increased, communication broken off and all main roads closed.
The relatives in Chengdu go to the prison, sit at the main gate and cry. A silent protest. Some have even come all the way from Lithang.
July 14, 2015
The news of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death also shocks all Tibetan communities around the world. Demonstrations and protests are organised and the Chinese government is asked to investigate the death and reveal the results to the world. According to media reports, Mr. Hamilton, a member of the UK Parliament and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Tibet, condemned the death, saying that “China has disregarded the concerns of the international community over Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, flouted universally-accepted norms on legal processes during his case and refused medical parole despite his serious illness. Now China has his blood on its hands.”
Reuters and the Associated Press are the first to report on this. The BBC, New York Times, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia follow suit.
All foreign media, however, copy Human Rights Watch and Students for a Free Tibet that both claimed that in 2005, Tenzin Delek’s sentence had been reduced to 20 years. But this is incorrect!
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s sentence was never reduced to 20 years! On December 2, 2002, an intermediate people’s court in Kardze Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, sentenced him to death on charges of “instigating a terrorist attack and inciting separatism;” the sentence was suspended by two years. On January 26, 2005, a high court in Sichuan province commuted the sentence to “a life sentence,” and he was “deprived of political rights for life.” There have not been any other amendments to the sentence until that afternoon on July 12, 2015, when Tenzin Delek passed away. It has really been a life sentence!
Xinhua reported on January 26, 2005: “The Sichuan province higher people’s court has reduced Tenzin Delek’s original death sentence to life, depriving him of all political rights for life.” See here: http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2005-01-27/09464962341s.shtml%E3%80%82.
I write on my blog: “Urgent message: Tenzin Delek’s sentence was never reduced to 20 years!” I subsequently also circulate this on Twitter and Facebook.
I start to edit a book about Tenzin Delek Rinpoche that shall include 13 years of essays, files, photos, interviews, petitions of common people and diaries of lawyers, over 100,000 words long. I am planning to send the manuscript to the Taiwan-based Snow Publishing House. This is the least I can do to commemorate him.
July 15, 2015
Many Tibetans from Lithang are quietly sitting in front of Chuandong prison (its official name is “No. 3 Sichuan Prison”). They demand to take a final look at the body of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and for it to be returned for a traditional Tibetan funeral ceremony. The head of the Judicial Bureau summons a meeting with officials from Nyakchuka, Lithang and Kardze and in the end, all of the requests are refused. Instead, it is emphasised that his body would be cremated. The reasons for his death are also withheld, thus not even following the “prison law” of China that stipulates the need for a medical appraisal if a prisoner dies from a disease. On top of that, the local authorities even send in heavily armed riot police to surround the quiet sit-in demonstration.
The Tibetans express that if they are not allowed to see Tenzin Delek or take his body, they would assume that he had been killed.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s two sisters are brought into the prison and allowed to watch a video taken with the camera used to monitor the prisoner. It is said that the video showed Tenzin Delek Rinpoche looking normal on the morning of July 12; but after eating breakfast, he suddenly fainted. The prison said that he passed away at 2 in the afternoon. Later, it was said that he had died at 4pm. An exact time of death is not confirmed. Moreover, the two relatives were only notified of the death at 10 in the evening.
A journalist from Reuters asks me: “Why did Tibetans request the dead body of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche to be returned?” I reply: “Because in Tibetan culture, a deceased has to be buried according to traditional customs and because Tenzin Delek was a Rinpoche, these customs are particularly elaborate. If one fails to do so, it would, for one, be an act of disrespecting the deceased; second, it would be an obstacle in the reincarnation of the Rinpoche; third, it would seriously distress the followers of the Rinpoche.” The journalist asks: “How did Tibetans interpret the fact that the local authorities refused to hand over the body?” I reply: “Most Tibetans immediately thought that this was a sign that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had not died naturally, but must have been killed.”
The Tibetans, including Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s relatives, who have been sitting in front of Chuandong prison are arranged into different hotels where they are monitored by police officers.
15 Tibetans have sustained injuries and are brought to hospitals in Chengdu; some photos leak out and I manage to find out the names of the injured: Tseten Ani, Tseten Gege, Khechoe, Wangmo, Dechen Toekyi, Dechen Langda, Ani, Dengpey, Dorbu, Adorbu. There are no photos of the remaining casualties.
We can find the newly-revised “Regulations on the Handling of Cases Involving the Death of Detainees in Prisons” on the internet:
Article 5: If a prisoner dies during imprisonment, the prison shall immediately inform the prisoner’s family members…
Article 9… (2) If the family members of the prisoner are suspicious of the prison’s medical appraisal, they may raise their suspicion to the people’s procuratorate … The people’s procuratorate shall immediately conduct examinations and make an appraisal on the cause of the death.
Article 14: If the family members of the prisoner have doubts about the people’s procuratorate examination, they may within three days after receiving the notice, file a written request to the people’s procuratorate for reconsideration. If the family members of the prisoner have doubts about the results of the reconsideration, they may raise their suspicion to the higher-level people’s procuratorate. The higher-level people’s procuratorate shall immediately conduct investigations and notify the prison and the family members.
Article 16: Once the case of death has been determined, the prison issues an official “death certificate”.
Article 19: The cremation of the body must take place 15 days after the determination of the cause of death.
If the family members of the deceased wish to delay the cremation, they must apply for it with the prison. A decision will be made based on an evaluation of the specific circumstances. The body can only be kept for an additional 10 days.
Article 12: Before cremation, the prison shall notify family members of the exact time and place and must grant family members permission to attend…
Article 21: After cremation, the family members shall sign an official cremation document allowing them to take with them the ashes…
Article 24: If the deceased belongs to an ethnic minority, considerations shall be given to the special traditions and customs in the handling of the body.
July 16, 2015
At 7am Beijing time, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche is forcefully cremated in prison. The requests of his relatives are all refused. The prison states that regardless of what the relatives say, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche will be cremated at this time. If they can arrange to look at him one last time, they can do so, if not, he will still be cremated.
At 1am, 18 monks from the monastery where Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had been based (including two Lamas) are allowed to enter the prison and wash the dead body, dress it and chant Buddhist mantras.
Afterwards, 14 relatives are allowed in to take one final look at the dead body. On their way, they see two drifts of white clouds levitating heavenwards; the Tibetans regard this as an omen.
The place where Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had been locked up is a secret prison, about five or six kilometres away from Chuandong prison. From the gate all the way to the inside, they see nothing but police vehicles and heavily armed police forces; there are hundreds of uniformed policemen, security measures appear to be particularly tight. The monks and relatives are searched several times and not allowed to take in mobile phones or cameras.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s prison cell was situated on a cliff; he had been locked up alone in an old, broken and very small cell. It was like a dungeon. His belongings as well as his prison clothing looked old and shabby, too.
The relatives who saw the body later reported that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s fingernails and mouth were black, which aroused their suspicions.
This secret prison has its own crematorium, so bodies of deceased do not have to be sent to an official undertaker. Tenzin Delek Rinpoche is cremated right there and with him all his belongings and clothing. Only two Lamas and two of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s relatives stay behind at the cremation grounds.
The prison agrees to hand over the ashes, but fails to present them with the official medical appraisal. The relatives do not get to sign any official cremation documents either.
It is still unknown whether the two lamas and the relatives really received the ashes or whether the ashes were secretly exchanged beforehand. No one can contact them, their mobile phones remain switched off, and so no one knows whether they have by now taken the ashes back to their home village. The remaining relatives stay in Chengdu awaiting news.
Yesterday, the Tibetans sitting at the entrance of Chuandong prison were asked to leave, but the phone lines and internet connections in Lithang and Nyakchuka have been disconnected.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s younger sister, Dolkar, submits the following written request to the prison; it is rejected.
Application for reconsideration:
We have the following objections to the way in which the prison answered our questions regarding the death of A’an Zhaxi.
- Today, the prison presented us with many appraisals, we requested to obtain a copy of the medical appraisal. At noon, a secretary named Huang agreed to this, but in the afternoon they changed their minds and said they could not give it to us.
- We were not allowed to take the dead body with us; we suspect that the prison is responsible for his death. Which regulation or law stipulates that a dead body cannot be taken home? Please provide us with an explanation.
- If the prison does not give a clear answer regarding the cause of death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, we will ask journalists and other experts to thoroughly look into this case. If we are allowed to take back the body, we would no longer raise the issue. This is really what all of us and the many followers wish the most.
- After the prison found out about the death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, why did they fail to inform us right away? Also, the prison has given different information regarding the time of death, some saying 2 pm, others 4 pm.
- The prison informed us that if we do not wish to see the body, he will be cremated at a certain time. Are there any regulations or laws regarding the cremation of a deceased whose cause of death has not yet been satisfactorily explained?
Addition to point 1: According to article 55 of the “prison law” of China: “If a prisoner dies from a disease, the prison shall make a medical appraisal.” According to article 16 of the newly-revised “Regulations on the Handling of Cases Involving the Death of Detainees in Prisons”: “Once the case of death has been determined, the prison shall issue an official ‘death certificate.’”
Addition to point 2: According to article 24 of the newly-revised “Regulations on the Handling of Cases Involving the Death of Detainees in Prisons”: “If the deceased is an ethnic minority, considerations shall be given to the special traditions and customs in the handling of the body.” A’an Zhaxi was a Tibetan, he left his home to become a monk, we would like to bury him according to Tibetan burial traditions, we ask you to respect Tibetan customs and thus return the body to the family and all believers to make funeral arrangements according to our traditions.
Addition to point 3: According to article 9 of the newly-revised “Regulations on the Handling of Cases Involving the Death of Detainees in Prisons”: “(2) If the family members of the prisoner suspect the prison’s medical appraisal, they may raise their suspicion to the people’s procuratorate … The people’s procuratorate shall immediately conduct examinations and make an appraisal on the cause of the death.” As relatives we would like to request the provincial people’s procuratorate to conduct investigations.
Addition to point 4: According to article 5 of the newly-revised “Regulations on the Handling of Cases Involving the Death of Detainees in Prisons”: “If a prisoner dies during imprisonment, the prison shall immediately inform the prisoner’s family members…” The prison clearly violated this regulation.
Addition to point 19: According to article 19 of the newly-revised “Regulations on the Handling of Cases Involving the Death of Detainees in Prisons”: “The cremation of the body must take place 15 days after the determination of the cause of death. If the family members of the deceased wish to delay the cremation, they must apply for it with the prison. A decision will be made based on an evaluation of the circumstances. The body can only be kept for an additional 10 days.” As family members, we strongly oppose the hurried cremation by the prison and request to delay the cremation.
Requested by Dolkar
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s relatives complain tearfully, they want to know the truth about his death. They once again raise the fact that five years ago (in May 2010), relatives and followers had already requested Tenzin Delek to be released for medical treatment. Their request included the following paragraphs:
“…on that day, several people, including persons in charge of the prison and those claiming to have provided Tenzin Delek Rinpoche with medical treatment, warned visitors to pay attention to several matters. They then briefly explained Tenzin Delek’s recent conditions, saying that he suffered from high blood pressure and that his conditions could lead to terminal illness any time, so they requested visitors to reduce the visiting time and to not talk about his hometown or how the foreign media reported on his case…”
“…Tenzin Delek himself said that his conditions were ok and that he did not have any illnesses. Thus, the prison’s talk about serious illnesses worries us deeply and makes us suspicious. Why would they say that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche could be critically ill any time, what motivations are behind this? Is this part of a scheme to announce in advance the plan to seriously injure Tenzin Delek Rinpoche?…”
Reuters, Human Rights Watch and other international media outlets correct their claims that the prison sentence had been reduced to 20 years. The English and Chinese versions of New York Times also follow suit.
July 17, 2015
Just after 8am, the Lithang County, Kardze Prefecture public security take away Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s younger sister Dolkar and her daughter from their hotel in Chengdu, accusing them of inciting religious protests. Dolkar whose full name is Dolkar Lhamo is 52 years old. Her daughter, Nyima Lhamo, is 25.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was cremated the day before, the four Tibetans (two Lamas and two relatives) have not been contacted, the first news only arrive in the evening. And these are devastating news. The urn with the ashes was forcefully taken away from them.
It is said that after the cremation, the authorities returned the ashes to the four Tibetans waiting at the cremation ground. But on their return journey accompanied by police, they were asked to stay the night in Chakzam County, which is really not far from Nyakchuka. In the evening, officials from Sichuan and Nyakchuka gathered the police inside the hotel and said that the higher authorities had requested to empty the ashes into the river. The four Tibetans entreated piteously, but the ashes were still forcefully taken away from them by officials at gunpoint and thrown into the nearest river. The four Tibetans felt helpless, they yielded to blank despair.
Internet and communications in Lithang and Nyakchuka are completely closed down. But some information still leaks through. In the morning, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s followers are protesting in Nyakchuka city, whether they are violently suppressed remains unknown. At Nalanda Thekchen Jangchup Choeling Monastery in Horlung Township, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s main monastery, a huge amount of riot and armed police are moved in to prevent monks from leaving or even lighting candles.
July 18, 2015
Horlung Township is still under martial law. The situation in other parts remains unclear.
It turns out that the story about Tenzin Delek’s ashes being forcefully taken away is true. Whether the officials really threw them into the river, however, is unclear. What is sure is that they completely ignored the pleading of the four Tibetans and snatched the urn from their hands, leaving without a word.
There is still no news of the taken away sister and her daughter. A person from public security calls her son and tells him that they would be released within five days. But it is not sure whether he is simply trying to deceive the family.
The French writer Claude Mouchard writes in his “œuvres-témoignages dans les tourmentés du XXe siècle”: “They will destroy you, even in your own grave. No one will know that you ever existed on this earth.” “In the state of political terror … the most important task of the destruction machinery is to erase any possible traces, including traces of casualties and traces of massacres.” And yet, the words of witnesses are “a tombstone made from air, suspended high up in the air. Every time, a piece of writing mentions the nameless deaths, this tombstone will reveal itself.”
July 19, 2015
Yesterday, China News Service (CNS) reported on the case. This is what we find online:
A’an Zhaxi died from an illness in prison.
CNS found out on July 18 that the Sichuan monk A’an Zhaxi (also referred to as Tenzin Delek outside Tibet) died from an illness in prison on July 12.
A’an Zhaxi was born in 1950 in the village of Degu, Lithang County in the Kardze Prefecture and became a monk of Chongxi monastery. His was charged of being the instigator responsible for the explosion on Tianfu Square in Chengdu between 2000 and March 2002, which led to the injury and death of many people.
In January 2003, Kardze Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court sentenced A’an Zhaxi to death with the sentence suspended for two years. In January 2005, the sentence was reduced to life sentence.
Additional information states that on July 12, A’an Zhaxi suddenly suffered from dyspnoea and organ failure while taking a nap around noon. Prison doctors and staff from the emergency unit rushed in to provide first-aid medical treatment and then moved him to the ICU ward of Dazhou County people’s hospital, but the cardiogenic treatment was ineffective and his death was recorded on July 12 at 16:05.
The Chuandong prison informed the family about the circumstances of the death on July 15 in accordance with the law; the people’s protectorate of Dazhou released the required results of their investigation.
According to respective information, A’an Zhaxi had been suffering from high blood pressure and coronary heart disease. Medical staff in the prison provided him with adequate treatment all along. He was moved to Dazhou county people’s hospital and Dazhou city centre hospital many times for medical check-up and treatment. But according to article 254 of China’s “criminal procedure law,” this prisoner could not be released for medical treatment. (ends).
Article 254 of China’s “criminal procedure law” states that “this prisoner could not be released for medical treatment” and must be referring to the following sentence: “A criminal shall not be released on bail for medical treatment if such release may endanger public security or if the criminal may injure or mutilate him/herself.” Of course, the reason for the authorities to disallow Tenzin Delek Rinpoche from leaving prison for medical treatment was that he “may endanger public security.”
However, even though CNS seems to be declaring the facts in their report, I wonder why Tenzin Delek was taken to “the ICU ward of Dazhou county people’s hospital” if he had, as stated, “died from an illness in prison”?
- Why did they refuse to show Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s medical appraisal to the family? Why did they promise to pass it on to them, but then changed their minds?
- Why did they rush to cremate Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s body, despite the objections raised by his family?
- Why did they insist on cremating Tenzin Delek Rinpoche at the prison instead of sending the body to an official undertaker?
- Why did they not, according to respective regulations, show the cremation documents to the family?
- Why did they initially give the ashes to the four Tibetans waiting at the cremation ground to then snatch them from their hands at gunpoint when they were on their return journey?
- Why did they actually announce to the relatives that they were going to throw the ashes into the river?
- Why did the security bureau take away Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s sister and her daughter who have been missing until today?
If CNS cannot answer these questions, well, then we are bound to believe that their report is fake and that they are lying.
July 20, 2015
The official state media is beginning to distort the facts.
Xinhua states that when Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was first put into prison, his health conditions were good. But he often refused medical treatment and medication, so his health deteriorated, he eventually passed away from a heart disease.
Global Times publishes an editorial whose titled first read: “American wants to “fish” another prisoner out of China’s prisons. But they later change the title to: Prisoner Tenzin Delek died from an illness and Tibetan independence groups are inciting the people. Global Times said that Tenzin Delek had been to the US several times, spreading lists of China’s “political prisoners,” Human rights protection is a convenient excuse Western countries use against China. But the Americans have been all too aware of the fact that Tenzin Delek had committed a crime, which is why they only occasionally brought up his case.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s sister and her daughter remain missing. (Note: according to news reports, both were freed from prison on August 1, where they had been kept for half a month).
July 21, 2015
Today is my birthday. I write the preface to the book “Our Recollection Becomes A ‘Tombstone in the Air’”
The former Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam who had also died in prison once wrote a poem that starts with the sentence “Let this air bear witness” and includes the following verses:
“Cold, sickly people will continue
To kill, to endure cold, to go hungry,
And in his renowned grave
The unknown soldier is placed.
Teach me, sickly swallow,
You who have forgotten how to fly,
How I can control this aerial grave
With no rudder and no wing.”
At this moment, it is late at night, it is dark. I light a candle and pray for Tenzin Delek Rinpoche: Om Mani Padme Hum……
Written between July 12 and 21, 2015, in Beijing.
This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)